Replies to Muhammad Hajji Legenhausem on Religious Pluralism

By Charles Upton

[NOTE: This article consists of two sections, excerpted from Findings in Metaphysic, Path and Lore by Charles Upton. This, the second, is an answer to those who see Traditionalism/ Perennialism from the point-of-view of Islam alone, and consequently reject it. The first section, On “Neo-Perennialism”: A Misapplication of the Transcendent Unity of Religions, is an answer to those who see Traditionalism/ Perennialism as particular to Islam, and consequently accept it.]

The italicized passages that follow are quotations from the article by Dr. Legenhausen, “Why I am Not a Traditionalist”, that appeared (and may still be posted) at

….there are theological grounds within Islamic teachings to reject the religious pluralism of the Traditionalists. The problem is not merely that Islam forbids idol worship, while idol worship is intrinsic to the non-monotheistic traditions. The problem is where the criterion for religious truth is to be found. According to Islam that criterion is given in God’s final revelation to man…

This assertion is based on a failure to discern the difference in level between an idol and a sacred image. And, given the place of sacred icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it is just as incorrect to associate “idol worship” strictly with the non-monotheistic traditions as it is to call the veneration of sacred images “idol-worship”. Icons are not idols, any more than are the sacred images employed in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. An idol, in the strict religious sense, is an image, statue or fetish which is literally believed to be a god: a source of Divine power, not merely a channel for it. To worship such an image as literally divine would be the equivalent of worshipping the Qur‘an as a separate goddess, or doing the same with the Ark of the Covenant. The Prophet Muhammad himself, peace and blessings be upon him, recognized the sacrosanct quality of sacred images when he protected the icon of the Virgin and Child on the inner wall of the Kaaba from being destroyed along with the pagan idols that had collected there over the generations. The prohibition of sacred imagery in Islam, especially in terms of pictorial representations of Allah or the Prophet—though certainly not in terms of architectural design and calligraphy—cannot be used to call into question the validity of sacred imagery in non-Islamic contexts. The Prophet also expressed great respect for Christian monasticism, while making it clear that there was to be no monasticism in Islam; in other words, he recognized that particular supports for the spiritual life may be valid and effective in certain traditional contexts but not in others.

Islam presents a relatively egalitarian social ideal…[however] Traditionalists such as Martin Lings continue to defend the Hindu caste system as being a part of authentic tradition [as a manifestation of the hierarchical nature of being], rather than condemning it on the basis of Islamic teachings…Traditionalists base their evaluations on the conceit that they can view all of the religions from some higher transcendent perspective.

But the Holy Qur’an itself views the religions known to the Arabs in the Prophet’s time from this “higher transcendent perspective,” in its doctrine that all “people of the book” possess true and divine revelations, however much some nominal believers in these revelations may have fallen away from them; in the Qur’an itself, God directs Muhammad to say we make no distinction between any of His messengers [2:285]. Islam is not a sect. Though in its outer form it necessarily possesses forms peculiar to itself, laws and practices designed to recall believers to sanctity, and designed to meet the specific spiritual needs of the people to which it is addressed, in its essence it is a return to al-Din al-Fitrah, the primordial religion of the human race. In the words of the Qur‘an (3:3): He hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture with truth, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, even as He revealed the Torah and the Gospel.

The Traditionalists would certainly accept egalitarianism in Islam insofar as it is an essential element, but they would not ignore the fact that such egalitarianism has not been the rule in historical Islam, only the ideal—not to mention the fact that traditional Islamic egalitarianism is fundamentally different from the revolutionary egalitarianisms, bourgeois and proletarian, of the west. The doctrine of the perfect Imam within Shi’ism, the pre-eminence (though not political entitlement) of the seyyeds, the Caliphs of Baghdad who were dynastic kings in all but name, show an egalitarianism greatly curtailed by the realities of history. History, too, however, is an expression of God’s will and providence, as well as of the inevitable sufferings and shortcomings of earthly life, insofar as the universe is not God.

Pluralism conflicts with Islamic teaching, because Islam presents itself as the final and definitive religion for mankind and not as culture bound, while pluralism sees the differences between Islam and other traditions to be due to cultural accidents.

Islam does not deny the other revelations but confirms them. It declares itself definitive and “quasi-absolute” only insofar as it denies the possibility of a newer revelation before the coming of the Hour, and makes itself quasi-absolutely incumbent upon all who follow Muhammad, the last

Prophet. And who could possibly say that the shari’ah, after 1400 years of interpretation, carries no cultural conditioning? The only aspect of Islam that is not (now) culture-bound is the essence of al-Din: submission to God. And submission to God is possible, and necessary, within every religion; as Jesus prayed in Gethsamani, “not my will but Thine be done.” Even non-theistic Theravada Buddhism, in its practice of vipassana, requires that we witness the ongoing changes of bodily sensations, feelings, mind-set and mind-contents—including all the events of the world, precisely as experienced—with no editorializing or interference. Such practice is strictly equivalent to submission to the Will of God, since whatever happens is in fact God’s Will, given that He is Lord of the worlds, and that He shows us His signs both in our souls and on the horizons. The Transcendent Unity of Religions sees the differences between religions not as mere cultural accidents—not to mention the fact that the cultures initiated or modified by God’s revelations are providential too, consequently there is nothing “mere” about them—but either as providential receptacles “waiting” for God’s revelations, or as subsequent elaborations and echoes of those very revelations.

Traditionalists use tradition and the intellectual intuition of the principles of sophia perennis as their criteria of evaluation instead of the principles of Islam.

This should not surprise us, since one need not be a Muslim to be a Traditionalist—as Dr. Legenhausen elsewhere admits—and given that there is nothing essential in the sophia perennis which cannot be found, in its own unique rendition, in the religion of Islam. The question of whether various Traditionalist writers speak in the language of “comparative religion,” or that of a particular religion such as Islam, or Christianity (as do Philip Sherrard, James Cutsinger, Rama Coomaraswamy, and, insofar as he may be called a Traditionalist, Jean Borella) depends largely upon their intended audience.

[NOTE: Sophia Perennis titles on Islam include The Islamic Tradition by Victor Danner; Al-Kimia: The Mystical Islamic Essence of the Sacred Art of Alchemy by John Eberly; Insights into Islamic Esoterism and Taoism by René Guénon; Near and Distant Horizons: In Search of the Primary Sources of Knowledge by John Ahmed Herlihy; Tales of Nasrudin: Keys to Fulfillment by Ali Jamnia; The Quatrains of Rumi: Ruba’iyat-é Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi translated by Ibrahim Gamard and Rawan Farhadi; What Do The Religions Say About Each Other?: Christian Attitudes towards Islam, Islamic Attitudes towards Christianity by William Stoddart, and Reflections of Tasawwuf: Essays, Poems, and Narrative on Sufi Themes and The Virtues of the Prophet: A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Greater Jihad, the War Against the Passions by Charles Upton.]

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